STARKVILLE — Former Mississippi State football player J.C. Brignone was celebrating a win in Week 2 of his junior year of high school when St. Stanislaus head coach Casey Wittman ordered a yellow pad of paper to be passed around the locker room. The instructions were simple: Write down your contact information.
“They’ve got a storm out there that could be potentially bad,” Wittman said. “We’re going to call everybody and let you know if we’re going to practice Sunday.”
The Brignones had weathered hurricane season in Pass Christian before. A contractor by trade, J.C.’s father, Julio, would drive around town whenever a storm was set to hit the coast and board up customers’ windows as a precaution.
J.C. had his own process for hurricane prep. He’d stay with longtime friend Brett Ladner, whose father of the same name served as the assistant chief of police in nearby Waveland. The next morning, they’d board an all-terrain Humvee vehicle and ride around town looking to help anyone in need.
“I’ve already sent my family off; this storm is supposed to be pretty damn bad,” Brett Sr. told Brignone at the time. “You guys need to go ahead and get out of here.”
Packing three T-shirts and two pairs of shorts with the expectation of being gone for the weekend, J.C., Julio, his mother, Lee, and their chocolate lab piled into their truck and headed for the Atlanta area. Hours later — and 15 years ago this past month — Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Mississippi and Louisiana.
‘They were the only school to really call’
For roughly three days, the Brignones stayed with family in Georgia before heading back to Mississippi. Images of the severe damage had begun to surface on television and from those who stayed. The pictures hauntingly spoke for themselves.
When he returned to Pass Christian, Brignone couldn’t even navigate the pothole-filled streets. The family lived just seven or eight houses off the beach, so he pulled the truck onto the sand, put it in four-wheel drive and soldiered toward his home.
The first thing Brignone noticed was the black 1979 Ford F-150 he and his father had spent four years restoring flipped over with the cab smashed on the opposite end of the family’s property. The second sight stopped his mother in her tracks.
“Our whole house was gone,” he said. “I mean, there was nothing but cinder blocks.”
In the days that followed, the Brignones’ rebuild was stalled. The family was short on money. Their insurance company defaulted in the aftermath of the storm and only afforded them around $15,000 — little consolation for the awards, keepsakes, family heirlooms and physical home that were lost to the tide.
Returning to southern Mississippi full time during the second half of his senior year, Brignone lived alone in a FEMA trailer in Bay St. Louis, while his parents were in a trailer of their own in Pass Christian. It’s normally a 10-minute drive across the bay, but it took Brignone 50 minutes to reach his parents on any given day as the bridge connecting the two towns succumbed to the storm.
“Financially, we struggled,” Brignone said. “My dad helped a lot of people get back in their houses, and we were still living in a FEMA trailer.”
With few funds and his life in Mississippi literally swept away, football offered him an outlet. In the hours and days that followed the storm, Brignone estimates he finally got service late that night or early the next morning. Scattered among the missed calls and texts on his BlackBerry were around 20 calls from MSU head coach Sylvester Croom and cornerbacks coach Shane Beamer.
Spending September through January of his senior year at Lilburn Parkview High School just outside Atlanta, Brignone was unsure of how the move would affect his recruitment. By fate, Beamer had been assigned to recruit the part of Atlanta in which Parkview was located.
An unofficial visit during the MSU-Georgia game during the fourth week of the 2005 season followed. Meeting with the staff during his time in Starkville, Brignone committed on the spot.
“Out of however many offers I had, they were the only school to really call and check on me,” he said solemnly. “And I just felt like that was important to me. If they cared about me during a natural disaster, when I was in college, they were also going to take care of me.”
Love thy neighbor
In Thibodaux, Louisiana, MSU sophomore safety Shawn Preston, his younger brother Shazz, and parents Shawn Sr. and Lori left their home for Houston in a caravan.
The 316 mile trek from Thibodaux to East Texas usually ran about five hours. But with residents throughout the area evacuating, the single-file caravan of cars carrying the Prestons and a handful of other family friends took closer to 10 hours.
For three days, the families spent time playing spades, telling stories and enjoying one another’s company. Shawn Sr. concedes through a laugh he and the other parents indulged in an adult beverage or two.
Shawn Jr. was just five years old when Katrina made landfall. Shazz, now ranked the No. 10 wide receiver in the 2022 class, was only about one. Shawn Jr. notes he was too young to fully comprehend the danger, but he could still sense an uneasiness.
“At the time I didn’t really know what was going on,” he said. “But you could just see the panic in everybody’s faces and the worry. People were trying to hide their feelings so the kids wouldn’t get panicked.”
Leaving Houston after roughly three days, the Prestons returned to Thibodaux. On the road leading to St. James High School, where Shawn Jr. and Shazz would later be a part of the football team, light poles had been snapped at their bases like toothpicks.
At the family’s home, debris was scattered and their roof suffered some damage, but the house had held up. Shawn Jr. said the most glaring image he recalls was the trampoline that previously resided in the yard behind his grandmother’s house had been strewn into a lot down the street.
With their own house surviving the storm, Shawn Sr. and Lori set to work helping others. At nearby Nicholls State, evacuees from New Orleans poured into Stopher Gym. Cots were set up across the hardwood previously reserved for the Colonels basketball team. Red Cross officials aided those needing assistance.
Shawn Sr. notes the image of a slew of New Orleanians being brought to the outpost in the back of a U-Haul truck remains seared in his memory.
In the lot outside the gym, the Prestons parked their food trailer — S & L Hooked on Seafood. For days, Shawn Sr. and Lori served people displaced from the hurricane. Red beans and rice was a go-to dish. Massive batches of spaghetti and marinara sauce followed. So too did a day of hot dogs, hamburgers and sausages.
Rouses, a small supermarket chain with stores in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama and headquartered in Thibodaux, even donated mass amounts of ice cream for those in need.
“Human spirit was at an all-time high,” Shawn Sr. said. “Everyone was willing to help.”
A paradise, and hope, lost to sea
In the West Bank section of New Orleans, MSU sophomore linebacker Aaron Brule packed a basket of toys and placed them on top of his bed. Clutching a handful of hot rod cars he’d secured from the nearby Walgreens, Brule hoped and prayed they’d survive any flooding if they were perched above the floor.
He took solace in those tiny vehicles in his youth. Armed with screwdrivers and a hankering curiosity, he spent hours deconstructing the cars and putting them back together. They weren’t antiques or major keepsakes in the grand scheme, but for a five-year-old Brule, they were his most prized worldly possessions.
“I never wanted to lose my cars,” he said through a laugh. “If I lost my cars, it was going to be a problem for everybody. It was like the darkest night in the house.”
Like Brignone, Brule and his family had planned to leave the city for just a few days. But as Katrina tore through the city like a knife, days turned into weeks.
Brule’s memories are somewhat fuzzy as to the exact circumstances of his family’s evacuation given his age at the time, but he still vividly recalls the rancid smell of wet carpet and a tree that had come to rest on his family’s home upon returning to the area.
Sitting through a 20-hour ride back to New Orleans as traffic backed up for miles, Brule looked on as mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, kids and grandkids made their way across bridges and through underpasses. New Orleanians had lost everything.
Even the persistent hope and flamboyant personality that rests at the city’s core in tourists scarfing down beignets at Cafe Du Monde or the effervescent excitement that permeates the Gulf Coast-tinged air of the French Quarter as passersby navigate past discarded yard-long daiquiri cups on Bourbon Street had been dimmed.
In New Orleans, a city whose soul is perhaps best magnified in the French phrase laissez les bon temps rouler — “let the good times roll” — the storied streets and cultural eclecticism of the place had been supplanted by a hellscape of biblical proportions.
“In my head at five years old I’m like, ‘This is like a movie or something,” Brule said.
An ongoing rebuild
Shawn Sr. and Lori know the route well. From their home in Thibodaux, it’s roughly five and a half hours through Metairie, past Lake Pontchartrain and due north up Interstate 59 before reaching Davis Wade Stadium.
Their visits to Starkville are relatively frequent, though the path is littered with reminders of times past. As they near the bridge on Interstate 10 that will later spit them out across the Louisiana-Mississippi border, they pass New Orleans East, colloquially known as “The East.”
Historically, the area is a place of strength. In the early 1800s, it was home to Fort Pike and Fort Macomb, military bases built in the wake of the War of 1812 to protect New Orleans. It was later a spot earmarked for urban development in the later half of the 20th century, though that project was met with mixed results.
Like so many other parts of New Orleans, The East was hit hard by Katrina some 15 years ago. Remnants of what once was offered reminders of the storm that took more than 1,800 lives. In the months that followed, much of the pre-Katrina population still hadn’t returned to the area as houses were toppled and family belongings were swept into the surf. Those who did were often left to live in FEMA trailers.
In New Orleans’ 17th Ward, the area of the city hit hardest by Katrina and where much of Brule’s father’s family called home, rotted houses still stand, and spray paint from the storm’s aftermath resides on boards of plywood.
For Brignone, Katrina’s wrath continued its persistent grip on his family in the months and years to follow. His father died two years after the storm left the family virtually homeless. His mother followed just a few years later, struggling herself with the passing of her beloved husband.
“The stress from Katrina, I really feel like, put the final straw on him,” Brignone said of his dad.
Fifteen years since Katrina first made landfall, institutions from the states hit hardest by the devastating storm will take the field in Baton Rouge when MSU meets defending national champion and No. 6-ranked LSU on Saturday.
In New Orleans, Bay St. Louis and around the nation, 2020 has presented its own sets of unprecedented challenges. But for the uncertainty the days to come bring and the demoralizing legacy the storm still holds, in both Mississippi and Louisiana, a fall Saturday afternoon is a return to a normalcy that’s lacked since the tides receded.
Laissez les bon temps rouler. Let the good times roll.
Ben Portnoy reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @bportnoy15.